The Literary Life and How To Live It
by Sean Murphy
An Interview with Charles Salzberg
This series is honored to have an opportunity to speak with a true Renaissance man--and virtual embodiment of the literary life--writer and editor Charles Salzberg. A typical day for Charles involves reading the work of his students and evaluating novel and short fiction manuscripts, and all while trying to find time for his own work. Not unlike most dedicated writers, he finds that he is always writing, even when he isn't actually writing. Living and working in New York City obliges one to multi-task, mentally as well as physically, and Charles has found that some of his best ideas come to him when he is far away from the computer.
After graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in English, Charles broke into the world of magazine writing: New York Magazine, Esquire, New York, GQ, and a variety of others. This experience eventually led to books, the most recent ghostwritten book making the NYT bestseller list. Charles has been a Visiting Professor of magazine writing at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence, The New York Writers Workshop, and the Writer's Voice. Despite his considerable experience and expertise in the world of non-fiction, fiction remains his true love, and he has a novel under consideration by M. Evans.
Murphy: Charles, among many other things, you've worked as a teacher and have been involved in more than a few successful writing workshops. How that has influenced your writing, helped it or hindered it?
Salzberg: Overall, it's helped my own writing. Seeing what works and doesn't work with other writers, no matter how good or how experienced, can't help but make you a better writer. You learn to take things apart, and if you do that and then try to put them back together, you learn how things really work. Now this doesn't necessarily mean you can always do that, but thinking about it is good nevertheless. Also, it's inspiring to deal with other writers and see them grow. I never fail to come home from a class energized, though that doesn't necessarily mean I sit down and write. In fact, I'll do just about anything to avoid writing-but I think that just goes with the territory.
Murphy: As a teacher, if you had to say: has the writing of your students gotten better over time? Worse? The same? What are the most common mistakes you see young writers making?
Salzberg: I have people who take classes with me over and over and I'm pleased to say that almost all of them have improved. This isn't necessarily because I'm a great or even good teacher, it's because they work at improving. They listen to what the others in the class say, weigh the suggestions, which means they're thinking about writing, and then try to make those suggestions work in their own work. And sometimes, you can learn more critiquing someone else's work than you can when your work is critiqued-which is what I meant by improving my own writing.
I'm also fortunate in that several of my students have gone on to publish books or magazine articles. For instance, Lauren Weisberger (The Devil Wears Prada) started her book in my classes, though it wasn't a book and it wasn't fiction at first. She just came in and started writing these fascinating essays about working in the magazine world. But there are lots of others who are publishing now, sometimes more than I am, which is very rewarding.
The most common mistake, by far, is telling not showing. Another is people who can't organize a thought, which means they can't organize a sentence or a paragraph or a page. And a third is people who think writing means they have to learn another language. Nope. I think some of the best advice I've ever seen is: Write the way you speak, but on your best day, not your worst.
Murphy: As an editor, you evaluate novel manuscripts for Algonkian, and others. Can you tell us something about the evaluation process? What do you look for? Is your intent to determine what is preventing the ms from being a publishable product?
Salzberg: It's not easy to talk about the evaluation process, because it changes with each manuscript I receive. I can tell you how I go about it, though. The first thing I do is note the competency of the writing. No matter how good a story might be, if the writer can't tell it well, it's not going to travel. Conversely, if the writing is terrific, the story sometimes matters less. Next, I look at the book as a whole--does the story hold together? Is it interesting? Is the voice compelling? Are the characters believable? Do the characters act and interact in a way that makes sense? But overall, it's just a matter of having done much too much reading over the years and getting a "gut" feeling about a book. It's kind of like one of the Supreme Court Justice's comment on pornography--I know it when I see it.
Once I've answered at least some of those questions, I'll make suggestions as to how I think the book can be improved. It's funny, because the word "publishable" doesn't mean much to me because so much that is eminently publishable isn't published, and that often has nothing to do with the quality of the book or the writing. Instead, it has to do with the commerciability of a novel, and that's impossible to predict. So, what I try to do is help writers write the best possible book they can write--and then, like a child, they just send it off into the world and see if it can find a home. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees...would that there were.
Murphy: By the way, which publishing houses and agencies do you work with?
Salzberg: Viking/Penguin, Dell, Simon and Schuster, Henry Holt, St. Martin's, M. Evans, Hyperion; and agencies include Trident Media Group, Peter Rubie Agency, Graybill & English, and the Spieler Agency, among others.
Murphy: What are some of the typical mistakes you see writers making with novel manuscripts? Weak hooks? Flat settings? Character and conflict issues?
Salzberg: Typical mistakes, include flat, unrealistic dialogue, motivations that don't make sense, telling rather than showing, lack of detail, boring writing, uninteresting characters, plots that don't hold together, and clichés. Man, I could go on and on, but I won't.
Murphy: Your book that made the NYT bestseller list. What can you tell us about it?
Salzberg: The last book I wrote was as a ghostwriter, so I can't really divulge the title, though it's been on the non-fiction NY Times bestseller list for the past two weeks. An agent I'd worked with before approached me and asked if I'd be interested in this project and, because it involved sports, politics, business and literature, I jumped at the opportunity. And, as with other books I've ghostwritten or walked on as a collaborator, it turned out to be a terrific experience.
Murphy: You are the first person profiled for "The Literary Life" who has had experience ghostwriting. Please talk about that, including pros and cons that the average writer and/or reader might not necessarily associate with that endeavor?
Salzberg: I got into ghosting accidentally. A friend had written a profile of a famous men's designer and he wanted her to write his book. But she had just taken a magazine editorial job and she suggested me. He met me for fifteen minutes, took a liking to me, although I knew absolutely nothing about men's fashion, which to me consisted of choosing which T-shirt went with my jeans. It turned out to be a wonderful experience in terms of working with this man. But it taught me that ghostwriting can be a nightmare if you're working with the wrong person. It also taught me that I had to submerge my feelings about how the book should be written, because I was hired as the "voice" of another person. My magazine work came in handy, because when you write for magazines you have to take on the voice of that particular magazine and, in many cases, submerge your own style-not always the case, but certainly the majority of magazines don't cotton to individual, idiosyncratic voices.
Okay, the pros: It's usually a nice paycheck and if the book goes wrong, your name isn't on it so you don't get the blame, i.e., the stigma attached to your career. Another pro is that you get to learn about something you wouldn't necessarily learn about, and it might even be something that's interesting.
The cons: working with the wrong kind of person: someone who micro-manages; someone who thinks they should be writing the book, not you. Another con, if the book does extremely well, critically or commercially, your name isn't on it, though everyone I've worked with gave me a nice credit inside the book.
Murphy: You started out at New York Magazine. How did that come about? And where did that take you?
Salzberg: You know, getting into magazine work was absolutely accidental. I was an English major in college and always wanted to write serious, literary novels. Unfortunately, when I got into the real world I realized that I could do that or I could eat and pay rent, but I couldn't do both at the same time. So I had to go out and get a job. And since, as a lit major, I had no discernible skills other than typing and being able to string sentences together, I took a friend's advice and got a job in the mail room at New York magazine, with promises that I'd move up quickly to an editorial position. To me, at that age, late 20s, quickly meant three months. Other than sorting and delivering mail, shining the occasional chandelier and moving furniture around, it was a great experience because I got to shoot the breeze with writers like John Simon, Ken Auletta, Jon Bradshaw, Steve Brill, and catch glimpses of Pete Hamill, Norman Mailer and Gay Talese-this was the heyday of New York, when the legendary Clay Felker was still the editor.
I used to watch the writers roll in around ten, ten-thirty, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, talk on the phone, shoot the breeze with the editors, then go to lunch at noon and come back at three, smelling of alcohol, then leave the building no later than 4:30, and I thought, hell, I can do that. So I pitched an editor a few ideas, she asked me to do one during my lunch hour and I did. They didn't buy it but assigned me another one that they did, and I sold that first one to the Daily News Sunday magazine, so I was off and running as a freelance writer.
Murphy: You've written some very successful non-fiction. Presumably that grew out of the magazine writing? How difficult is it for a novice to break into the magazine writing world?
Salzberg: For me it was easy, too easy, to break in. I was kind of cocky and thought I had it made, what with publishing the first two pieces I wrote-without any journalism background-and to major periodicals, for somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500, which wasn't bad in those days. But for the rest of that year I think I only made another $1,500, so I came down to earth pretty quickly. But once I had those clips, I was in pretty good shape and other major assignments came, slowly at first, but then things picked up.
Murphy: Lastly, and far from least important, you are also a fiction writer, and have described it as your first love. Do you find that writing less "creative" material helps you maintain a focus and drive to attempt polished fiction?
Salzberg: At first, I looked down on journalists and non-fiction writers because I thought, "what's so hard about that?" But I learned that any kind of writing stretches your muscles. And I think I became a better fiction writer because of writing non-fiction, especially writing to word counts. I learned how to be more economical, more precise, more attentive to detail, all things that are very important to fiction writers. And I also learned that there isn't that much difference between writing fiction and non-fiction-there's a big crossover, using fictional techniques for non-fiction writing. I hate the term "creative non-fiction," but I'm afraid there is some truth in that.
Murphy: Other work(s) on the way?
Salzberg: I finished a quirky detective novel, called Swann's Last Song, a while ago and it's been with a publishing house for over a year, during which time I've done a couple of revisions. If it is accepted, I'll have to write a sequel--part of the deal. I also co-wrote a kids' movie, which was just made, so we might do a sequel to that, too. Otherwise, I'm very busy reading for all the writing classes I teach.
Murphy: If you had to say which writer influenced you most, and which book, what would they be? Any other notable influences, artistic or otherwise?
Salzberg: Without a doubt, Saul Bellow-I remember when I was just a kid picking up books like The Victim, or Henderson the Rain King, or Seize the Day, or Herzog-and then, one of the most significant influences on me as a writer was Nabokov's Lolita, which I can read over and over again and still not get everything out of it that's there. And Bernard Malamud's The Fixer, or his short stories. I could go on, but I won't...
Murphy: MFA or No-MFA? Any comments or opinions for the folks who are adamant (pro OR con) about the value of MFA programs?
Salzberg: I spent two weeks in an MFA program and quit. It's not that I'm anti MFA, I think that if you want it, fine. You'll need it if you want to teach; or if you want to network. But I think the way you really learn to write is to read, read, read-and then write, write, write. Writers groups or writing classes, if you get a good teacher, will do just as much for you as an MFA. Did Saul Bellow get an MFA? Ernest Hemingway? F. Scott Fitzgerald? Philip Roth? Margaret Drabble? Vladimir Nabokov? It's a relatively new phenomenon. But again, I would never suggest that someone who wants an MFA not get one. I just don't think it'll necessarily make you a better writer.
Murphy: Has your experience tended to demystify the publishing process (for good or bad-or both) or has it made it even more special?
Salzberg: Absolutely, yes, it has demystified it, but certainly not made it more special. Every writer I know talks about getting out of the business, doing something else. But unfortunately, most of us have no other marketable skills. Today, most of publishing is about making money, not necessarily publishing good books. And that's sad. But there is hope-small presses, University Presses and other independent publishers are now filling those roles. Unfortunately, I think publishing has gotten Hollywood-ized, shooting for the blockbuster.
Murphy: Lastly: any advice for aspiring writers?
Salzberg: Read, read, read. Then write, write, write. Then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. And never give up. Perseverance, that's the key.